Fairmont girls team, Mavericks’ Lewis to run in showcase event

SHOWCASE INVITEES — Members of the Fairmont Cardinals girls cross country team, clockwise from front left: Carys Gudahl, Eleanor Hamlet, Tabitha Thatcher, Emma Gudahl, Macy Hanson, Laura Thompson and Hannah Neusch, along with Martin County West/Martin Luther’s Jake Lewis (not pictured), will compete in Saturday’s TC Running Company Cross Country Showcase in Atwater. (Photo by Kyle McAreavy)

FAIRMONT — When the school districts in Martin County had to switch to distance learning in late September and early October, the Fairmont and Martin County West/Martin Luther cross country seasons seemed to be over.

Luckily for the high school runners, the Minnesota Cross Country Coaches Association assembled to put together a large meet to replace the Minnesota State High School League’s annual state meet. Because the inaugural event — tabbed the TC Running Company Cross Country Showcase — is not sanctioned by the MSHSL, the Fairmont runners cannot wear their high school uniforms, cannot use school transportation and Cardinals’ head cross country coach Bob Bonk will have to watch from the sideline. Bonk and his fellow brethren are not allowed to coach at the competition. Bonk said though he hasn’t been able to coach the young runners outside of the MSHSL season, many parents have volunteered to help.

“We don’t get any school transportation, parents had to pay for the entry fee, which is 20 bucks.

And then, you know, usually we have some other things covered,” Bonk said. “They can’t run in uniforms, so the girls are making up their own. It’ll be fun. But it’s considered more like a club meet really, but I mean, it’s the best teams in the state. So it’s still a good, good test of where we are.”

Alongside nine other schools and 25 individuals, the Fairmont girls cross country runners will travel to Island Pine Golf Course in Atwater on Saturday and run in the second of three Class A girls team groups.

With COVID-19 concerns in mind, the coaches association plan to spread out the competition over two days and 20 races. Large schools run all day Friday, while smaller schools run Saturday with boys running in the morning and girls in the afternoon.

Fairmont’s runners will directly face off with Belle Plaine and Minnehaha Academy at 2 p.m. Saturday, while Canby/Minneota, Pequot Lakes, Luverne, Winona Cotter, Glencoe-Silver Lake, Hawley and Nova Classical Academy will run at 1:15 p.m. and 2:45 p.m. Saturday.

Fairmont enters the race as the only Class A girls team to not run in their section race, and hasn’t run a competitive race since Oct. 1 because of Martin County’s COVID-19 struggles, but Bonk said he believes the team leadership has the girls ready to go.

“I think some years this would have been a disaster, having to stop and restart a few times,” Bonk said. “It’s like the cat with nine lives. You know, a couple times I thought ‘this is over for sure.’ And then there’s a breath of life the next day. I’ve coached cross country for 45 years, I’ve never had a situation like this. … having a month between our last meet and the state meet is just crazy.

“But because of the leadership on the team from the three captains — Hannah (Neusch), Tabitha (Thatcher) and Laura (Thompson) — and just the kind of girls they are, if any group ever could have done it, this group is the group. I’ve been so impressed with their stick-to-itiveness. Their, you know, their never giving up, their ability to just work on their own if necessary because there’s been a couple two-week periods where that was the case. They’ve been just remarkable, honestly.”

Those captains will lead a group of seven runners Saturday, with Emma Gudahl, Eleanor Hamlet, Carys Gudahl and Macy Hanson joining them. Unlike the usual MSHSL state meet, Fairmont’s runners will not bring any reserve runners with them.

This will be the fifth state meet in the long careers of captains Tabitha Thatcher and Class A No. 9-ranked Laura Thompson; the second for Neusch, Emma Gudahl, Carys Gudahl and Hanson, while Hamlet is running in her first state meet after standing by as an alternate last year.

Bonk said he expects Luverne’s girls to be the favorite Saturday, but he thinks the Fairmont runners have a chance to finish in a top spot.

“I think we’re better than some of the teams, we ended up being ranked sixth (at the end of Fairmont’s regular season),” Bonk said. “There’s 10 teams — I’d love to get fifth or higher. I see Luverne as a very heavy favorite because they have so much depth, there’s hardly any separation among all their girls and that’s huge. But I would love to see a top-five finish and maybe even a top-three finish. So we have a good team, we really do. And you know, we have a chance to show that on Saturday.”

Earlier Saturday, Martin County West/Martin Luther’s Jake Lewis will run as an individual at 12:30 p.m. in the small schools’ boys race.

It will be Lewis’ second state meet in his second year as a cross country runner.

“He’s the only runner we have going up, he had been to just the one state meet last year, but that was his first year out for cross country at all and that was what made it such a great achievement,” Martin County West/Martin Luther head cross country coach Stannetta Svoboda said. “He had been a football guy and he really loves football, but we gave him a workout his sophomore season and he hadn’t really known his level of talent, so we told him he has a God-given talent for cross country and it’s up to him what he does with it. He knows this is something special and even though this season didn’t go the way a senior would have liked, he’s really excited to get one more shot this year.”

Lewis will look to finish his senior season strong after going undefeated in the Mavericks’ meets and winning a couple of races by more than two minutes, by running a new personal best, instead of focusing on placement.

“We aren’t really sure how the time format will work for this race, whether his time will go up against all the team runners or just the individuals, so our goals are more time-based,” Svoboda said. “His personal best from last year was 16:40, so we’re hopeful he can get right around there or even better.”

Each runner will receive two tickets for spectators, with a large crowd being discouraged.


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